There’s one movie I find myself watching every Halloween. For me, it’s a movie that strikes all the right chords in its blend of horror, creepiness, and scares. It features a smart, compelling story, actors I like who are given clever, humorous dialogue with obscure references to recite, film direction filled with creepy cutaways and insane imagery, and, in my mind, the granddaddy of all movie monsters. It’s one of the most overlooked and underrated horror movies ever made; a movie easily passed off as just another cheesy sequel- but it’s the real deal, a genuine continuation of arguably the scariest movie ever made. Written and directed by the man who created the original “Exorcist,” it’s William Peter Blatty’s 1990 film, “Exorcist III.”
What made William Friedkin’s 1973 film adaptation of Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” so scary was its depiction of the intrusion of evil into our everyday life, but this was no ordinary evil- this was evil itself. Twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) communicates via Ouija board with a spirit cutely calling itself Captain Howdy. The cuteness ends, however, when we realize the true identity of the spirit- it’s the devil himself. The nightmare we witness is watching the devil possess Regan’s body, making her do all sorts of unlady-like things: urinating on rugs, projectile vomiting green slime, rotating her head 360 degrees, and (as the ultimate “f-you” to our Lord and Savior) masturbating with a crucifix. After watching this horrific freak show, we want the devil out of Regan MacNeil’s body just as much as the two priests who are sent to perform the exorcism do. In the course of the exorcism, one of the priests, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), manages to coax the devil into possessing his own body instead of Regan’s. The devil takes the bait and enters Karras’s body, only to fall for Karras’ double-cross as Karras leaps out of Regan’s second-story bedroom window to plummet to an adjacent flight of stone steps below. As Karras lies dying at the foot of these steps, a priest amid the crowd of gathering onlookers rushes to Karras and administers last rites (at least we know Karras’ soul will be safe). Days later, Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), previously assigned to investigate a homicide connected to the MacNeils, stands at the head of these stone steps remembering Karras and watches the now “devil-free” Regan and her mother leave Georgetown.
But is Karras’ soul really safe? Does the devil ever really go away? While Regan might have been spared the devil’s wrath through Karras’ heroic efforts, Blatty knows (as we all do) that the devil can’t be killed. After Karras’ trickery, imagine how unhappy and vengeful a fallen archangel might be after being duped by a servant of Christ? Blatty knows, and he shows us that there’s going to be hell to pay.
Blatty’s literary sequel to “The Exorcist” was a book called “Legion.” Unfortunately, in making the film adaptation of “Legion,” it had to be called “Exorcist III” because of a truly bad sequel made to cash in on the success of the original Exorcist- John Boorman’s 1977 film “Exorcist II: The Heretic.” So while the title may be uninspired and off-putting, the film “Exorcist III” is anything but uninspired. If you’re going to make a sequel to “The Exorcist,” you go for authenticity- you keep its Oscar-winning originator intact. In doing so, you get a plausible spin on an old favorite. Wouldn’t it make sense for the devil to want to get even with the priest who screwed him over? That’s what makes “Exorcist III” and Blatty’s continued storyline so much more believable, scary and fun.
In “Exorcist III,” George C. Scott takes over the role of Lt. Kinderman (for the late Lee J. Cobb), called to investigate a strange murder in Georgetown: a black boy has been decapitated and crucified on a pair of rowing oars, in place of his head is the head from a statue of Christ painted in blackface like a minstrel show. The subsequent decapitation of a priest in a confessional shows signs of something Kinderman knows well- the markings and modus operandi of serial killer James Venamun, known as the “Gemini killer”. A third decapitation confirms to Kinderman that the Gemini killer is indeed back but since Venamun’s been dead for fifteen years, who’s doing the killings? More disturbing to Kinderman, there is evidence of different sets of fingerprints at the scenes indicating different people are committing these copycat crimes with the Gemini killer’s M.O.. To add more craziness to the already bizarre situation, Kinderman’s investigation leads him to the disturbed ward in the neurology department of the hospital where the third victim was murdered and hears a man call his name from an isolation cell. Kinderman thinks he knows the man; he believes the man in the cell is his long-deceased friend Father Damien Karras.
Is Kinderman’s mind playing tricks on him? Fifteen years after Karras’ death, he’s still haunted by memories of Karras’ sacrifice for the MacNeil girl, but could Karras have survived the fall down those stone steps so many years ago? Leave it to Blatty to conjure the master of all tricks- the devil himself- to provide the answers.
It’s a trippy horror rollercoaster, fueled with the added benefit of having Blatty direct this film adaptation himself. To see Blatty cinematically paint the images of his mind just add to the fun- after all, how many times have you walked by a religious statue and turned around to see it sporting the face of the Joker and holding a knife? Equally trippy dialogue, grandiose and grotesque monologues powerfully delivered by Brad Dourif as Gemini killer Venamun (he was the voice of “Child’s Play’s” Chucky after all), and the campily-inspired casting of Scott (if you’re going to do battle with the devil, why not have the guy who won an Oscar playing Patton on your team) are just some of the ingredients that make this whole crazy ride work.
As described by the Rolling Stones, the devil is a man of wealth and taste. If “The Exorcist” is the wealthy indulgence in filet mignon, then “Exorcist III” is the tasty indulgence of a cheesesteak- while the basics of the steak are still there, the cheesesteak satisfies your craving for grease and it’s served in a fun way with savory additions to complement its creation. Served up by Blatty, “Exorcist III” will make you realize that the evil booming guttural growl you hear on the film’s soundtrack isn’t your stomach talking, it’s the signal that something wicked this way comes.